By PHILIP EWING
Part of a POLITICO Pro Special Report series on the Obama administration’s executive action and regulatory agenda.
The Pentagon has learned that if it can’t go through Congress to get what it wants, sometimes it’s best best to try going around.
Two of the Defense Department’s biggest long-term budget priorities — cutting troop compensation and closing bases — also happen to be politically radioactive for lawmakers sensitive about home-district economies and accusations of hurting the military.
So as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gets more time under his belt running the Pentagon, he may attempt, as his predecessors have, to try to fly under the radar in order to shape his budget the way he and the White House want.
Defense officials are reportedly considering a raft of changes to troop benefits, including health care, housing allowances and access to on-base commissaries. The Pentagon has already dialed back the number of areas in which troops may receive imminent-danger pay — although defense officials say that decision was not budget-driven.
It could add up to a strategy in which DoD asks to reduce so many different personnel programs that Congress can’t keep up, with the net effect being an overall reduction in the personnel account.
When the Pentagon has tried to dial back individual programs — it said sequestration meant it couldn’t pay troop tuition assistance, for example — the outcry prompted Congress to create special carve-outs that just added them back to the budget. Congress already has dialed back some of the pension reductions for working-age retirees that were part of last month’s budget agreement.
For the record, defense officials say they want to work with Congress, not in spite of it.
“As a veteran himself,” Hagel “is sensitive to making sure that our troops and families get the benefits, financial and otherwise, that that they’ve earned — that they deserve — and he understands that there’s anxiety over compensation reform,” said Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby. “He’s made it very clear to leaders in this building that we’re going to move ahead on compensation reform in a balanced, measured, responsible way — and be transparent.”
But the bottom line is that it needs to get done, Kirby said.
Pentagon officials warn that the military’s personnel costs, which have grown about 50 percent per person since 2001, are climbing so much they won’t leave enough money left for everything else by the 2020s. The military services need advanced weapons and equipment to stay relevant in the 21st century, they say, which DoD will not be able to afford if an ever-increasing share of its budget goes to personnel.
Hagel, Kirby said, “has made clear that we have to adopt some compensation reform, we simply have to, because at the rate we’re going, it simply becomes unsustainable. While some tough decisions might be a little hard to swallow now, they will be a whole heck of a lot harder to swallow if we don’t do anything and 10, 15, 20 years from now, the budget simply crashes under the weight of compensation issues.”
The Pentagon may have slightly more ability to reduce the costs of what it calls “excess infrastructure.”
The Defense Department doesn’t use more than 20 percent of its bases, buildings or real estate, according to past estimates, but officials lament they must still continue to spend billions of dollars using or maintaining them. With the defense budget likely to remain flat at best, or shrink, leaders want to get the most out of the money they have by downsizing as many places as possible, especially given the size of the force is set to continue falling after the Afghan withdrawal.
Only Congress, however, may close military bases, and only then after setting up the dreaded Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which pits member against member in a battle over why districts should keep one base over another. The Pentagon has asked Congress to set up a new BRAC for two years, but each time, lawmakers declared the idea dead on arrival.
What the Pentagon can control without as much congressional notice is the disposition of units. So instead of closing an Air Force base, commanders could try to relocate its detachment of fighter jets elsewhere while still technically keeping the base open.
That’s exactly what the Air Force attempted with Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, much to the ire of Sens. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat. Service leaders said it made more sense and would save money to move a squadron of F-16 fighters to Elmendorf Air Force Base, elsewhere in the state, and keep Eielson “warm” for potential future use.
Murkowski and Begich howled, marshalling support from local activists in Fairbanks all the way to their colleagues in the Senate. They succeeded in getting language passed that delayed the Air Force’s proposed move, then defunded it, and finally the Air Force abandoned its support for the move altogether.
“Alaskans love to love our Air Force, and I believe when thousands of us, from Salcha to Mountain View, came together against this move, they made their case,” Murkowski said at the time. “The Air Force took an appropriate, closer look at a proposal they now acknowledge was flawed and a proposal that was communicated poorly.”